Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Way We Used To Shop.

Woolworths is no more, the former retail giant has become the latest victim of the credit crunch.

As feature of the British high street it will be much missed, not all that long ago we used to troop through its doors to buy everything from cheap household goods to the latest hit single, at least we did until it stopped providing the things we wanted at a price we were willing to pay.

The fall of Woolworths brings to mind the demise of other retailers the fickle British shopper fell out of love with.

Remember C&A? For years they were the butt of jokes for the pedestrian styling of their clothes, fit for middle managers living in Middle England perhaps but not the sort of thing people with pretensions to style would want to be caught dead wearing. Actually they sold decent clothes at bargain prices, rather like current high street favourite Primark, but fashion spoke and, eventually they walked the plank into oblivion.

A more poignant memory of how we used to shop related to the small independent traders that operated near to my childhood home in Shelton, all of which have gone the way of C&A and Woollies.

There was Stevenson’s, the newsagent, where every Sunday morning a parade of children would present their pocket money with the plaintive cry of ‘what can I get for this?, quite a lot as it turned out.

Bennett’s on the corner of Cauldon Road, the sort of shop that sold only what its owner thought there was a ‘call for’ in the neighbourhood, meaning noting remotely ‘exotic.’ There was, I recall, an antique bacon slicer on the counter that made a reassuring clunk as it went about its business.

The most exotic shop of them all was the splendidly named Shelton Model Home Store, an emporium that sold everything in the hardware line from a single screw to a fully working steam engine.

They are all gone now and, until recently, I would have said the business model under which they operated was consigned to history too. People didn’t want personal service they wanted to visit vast malls on the edge of town where they could be bludgeoned into indecision by endless choice, now I’m not so sure.

If these frightening economic times have taught us anything of value it is that the customer is king, Woolworths and the other once great businesses that will surely follow it into oblivion forgot that simple fact to their ultimate cost.

Perhaps the answer isn’t a change to the levels of VAT designed to get people back into the habit of spending, perhaps the answer is to go back to the sort of practices favoured by yesterday’s small shopkeepers.

They may have been decidedly conservative in their tastes but they never stocked anything they couldn’t sell and they knew, without the benefit of having studied for an MBA, that if you look after your customers they will look after you in return.

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